When I first ventured into the world of the internet, I immediately began frequenting boardgame forums. I occasionally heard mention of a game called “Shanghai Trader”, with the game being touted as a fun and chaotic negotiation treat. I managed to acquire an un-punched copy 4 or 5 years ago, but never managed to get it to the table. I actually read the rules several times, but never felt comfortable enough to try to explain the system. I felt it would be one of those games that I’d have to learn from someone else before I could teach it to our group.
A few weeks back, I notified Dave Atwood that his turn to choose the game we would play was coming up. He informed me that he wanted to try Shanghai Trader. I promptly made him a copy of the rules and made sure to re-read the rules myself prior to the game. I figured that between the two of us, we should be able to fully understand the system and explain it to the other players. We succeeded in our task!
The game is set in the turbulent city of Shanghai in the 1930’s. The city was an economic free-for-all, with just about anything being able to be bought, sold, traded and extorted. Wheeling-and-dealing ruled the city, and everything and everybody was up for sale to the highest bidder. Kinda like Wall Street in the 80’s.
The board depicts the old city of Shanghai, divided into a nineteen districts. Each district is further subdivided into neighborhoods containing either trading posts, rackets, warehouses, factories, railroads or the airport. Most of the districts lie within the International Zone, which offers a modicum of protection and safety. Venturing into the warehouse or factory districts, however, is much more dangerous, with a chance of being shanghaied to the rough-and-tumble district of Old Chinatown, infamous for its brothels, gambling houses and opium dens.
Each player represents one of the nations involved in the economic jungle of Shanghai: U.S, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Russia. Appropriately, the object of the game is to gain control of various rackets and businesses, extort as much money as possible, then get out of the city before it falls into complete civil disorder.
Since the game is long out-of-print – indeed, to my knowledge, Panther Games is no longer in business – I won’t go into great detail concerning the game’s mechanisms. Instead, I’ll briefly describe the flow of the game and my impressions.
Each turn is divided into five sub-turns. The first sub-turn of each turn is the “Cycle” phase, wherein players extort … er, collect … revenue from their holdings, determine initiative and then make deals with one another. This operates similar to the “Diplomacy Phase” in Diplomacy. Players are free to make whatever deals or arrangements with each other that they desire. These deals usually are made in attempts to secure some degree of protection, usually involving reciprocal promises or the exchange of money or other forms of goods or services. For example, a player controlling the Shanghai Club may agree to provide police protection for one of his opponent’s districts in exchange for being allowed to deposit currency without fees at the Currency Trader, or to keep the nefarious monks of the Buddhist Monastery from extorting his coolies. During this segment, players deploy any police, monks, prostitutes or other employees to the various districts.
Following the ‘Cycle’ phase, four identical ‘seasonal’ phases are conducted. In these phases, the arrival of ships (if any) are determined, a mandatory event is conducted, and players move their counter, hire employees and send out thugs, muggers or assassins.
Ships arrive quasi-randomly based on a chart and die roll. If a ship arrives at a dock containing a player’s warehouse, that warehouse is serviced and will produce more income during the revenue phase. The player who controls the Great Orient Shipping Line racket determines the location where ships arrive. This can be very powerful and is also a great negotiating tool.
Each season, a particular event occurs. This will be a Gala Performance, Roulette Rouble, Bastille Day Bash and the Picnic Races. The owner of the corresponding racket conducts the event, which usually involves players gambling money for a potential reward, or possibly behaving badly at a gala party and being forced to pay a fine. Owning the French Club seems to be the nastiest position, as he has the ability to force one player to pay for the annual Bastille Bash – a sum that can reach as high as $50,000. Ouch! The French really know how to throw a party … and force someone else to pay for it!
Moving to a new location, which is required, is a bit trickier than one might think. A player is free to select the district he desires to move to, but then must roll a die to see which neighborhood he actually visits. This can be frustrating, especially if you are trying to visit a particular trading post in order to secure control of it. I can see where the randomness does add an atmosphere of chaos to a game that is set in a chaotic time and city, but it can be a bit much. One wonders if things would improve if players could pay a bit of money to modify their die roll.
Moving is not totally random, however. Players are always free to move to a neighborhood they already control. Plus, once they control the two trading posts in a neighborhood, they are free to move to that neighborhood’s racket and assume control.
The tricky part is getting the correct dice roll to reach both trading posts, or to reach the warehouses and factories. Be prepared to be frustrated.
If a player opts to venture outside of the international district, which is where the warehouses & factories are located, there is a danger of being shanghaied. Rolling a ‘6’ results in the player being kidnapped and whisked away to the seedy Old Chinatown district. There, players might be extorted by the Royal Tongs, forced to consort with prostitutes, or even get sent to the opium dens, where they might get hooked and spend several turns ingesting illegal substances.
To gain control of a trading post, a player hires a coolie for $10,000. Each trading posts controlled generates an income of $10,000. Grabbing control of a racket is accomplished by hiring an racketeer ($30,000), but the player must first control both trading posts in that neighborhood. Controlling a racket conveys certain powers, all of which can be used to enhance one’s financial coffers or threaten other players. Once a player gains control of a racket, he can only lose it if control of both trading posts in that neighborhood are torn from him.
Controlling warehouses and factories enhance a player’s income. A warehouse pyramid consists of two trading posts and a warehouse, while a factory pyramid adds a factory to the equation. Income can vary from 30k to 100k, depending upon whether the warehouse was serviced by a ship that year.
Each turn, a player may hire one general contractor … a thug, mugger or assassin. Thugs are relatively cheap -- $10,000. They are sent to trading post and attempt to chase off the controlling coolie. The player rolls a die and 1 – 4 meets with success. Any police or monks present in the district add 2 to the dice roll, making the attempted thuggery more difficult. Muggers are more expensive ($30,000) and target individual player counters. If successful, they force the player to lose one-half of their cash-in-hand. Again, police or monks provide some protection, but the best protection is to be located outside of the international district, where the muggers dare not venture. Of course, venturing there runs the risk of being shanghaied.
Players ultimately win by ferreting away money in international bank accounts and escaping Shanghai alive. To deposit (or withdraw) money, players can either visit the Imperial Trading Banks, where there is no commission, or the Currency Trader racket. The player controlling this racket can charge a commission of up to 10% of the transaction. Of course, this can be reduced or eliminated in exchange for other favors or services.
So why wouldn’t a player just go to the Imperial Banks? Well, that requires a roll of a 1 or 2, whereas visiting the Currency Trader can be automatic if the owner gives his permission.
The game ends following ten turns (8 turns if playing with 5 or 6 players). To be even eligible to win, a player must first escape Shanghai alive. To do so, he must visit the International Consulates and obtain a passport. Passports cost $50,000, or are free if the player is lucky enough to roll a ‘5’. Once the passport is obtained, a player may head for the airport where he can hire up to three bodyguards. One bodyguard costs $25,000, two bodyguards cost $50,000, while three bodyguards cost $100,000. On the next turn, he can attempt to reach the plane and fly to safety. Of course, before his next turn arrives, each opponent has the opportunity to hire an assassin for $50,000. A roll of 1 – 4 will succeed in killing the fleeing player, but the roll is made more difficult for each bodyguard the player has hired.
After the completion of the tenth turn, players who have successfully escaped Shanghai tally the money in their international accounts. Cash-in-hand is worthless. The player who has successfully accumulated the most wealth is victorious.
The game was wild fun. Yes, there is a healthy dose of randomness involved, and sometimes that randomness can be frustrating. It took me quite awhile before I was able to roll the required numbers in order to gain control of both trading posts in a neighborhood. Thus, my opponents had gained control of rackets and trading pyramids at a quicker pace than I did. However, I was able to use my rackets to negotiate some favorable deals and claw my way back into contention.
The game has a dozen different rackets to control, each with unique powers and abilities. How these powers are wielded seems to offer players numerous possible strategies and paths to pursue. There certainly seems to be ample room within the system to explore many options and keep games fresh.
The negotiation and deal-making aspect allows for some very creative deals. I’ve alluded to this already. I like this, as players are quite free to strike clever deals and form interesting alliances. Thus, if a player is faltering in one area, he can use his strength in other areas to potentially alleviate that deficiency. The wide-open nature of the collusion phase adds exciting possibilities and likely has the potential for giving each game a different feel.
The biggest drawback to the game was its length. Our game took better than four hours to complete, and that was with just four players. Even though the game is shortened by two turns with 5 or 6 players, the additional time it would take for each additional player to perform their action on each turn will likely even add more time to the proceedings. I don’t mind the occasional long game, but this will likely mean that the game will only make an appearance every year or two. A shame, since it really was a lot of fun.
Dave (Britain), Willerd (American), Keith (French) and I (Germany) participated in the controlling and extortion of Shanghai.
All of us immediately sensed the importance of grabbing control of trading posts, so spend the first several seasons attempting to reach these trading posts, hire coolies and grab control of rackets. In an attempt to gain control of a warehouse, Willerd ventured outside the safety of the International Zone and was shanghaied to Old Chinatown. He found himself in the brothel, but the grateful … or disappointed ladies let him escape their clutches without payment.
Keith grabbed control of the important Currency Trader racket and used this to consistently negotiate favorable deals with his opponents. He generally allowed players to deposit money for free at the Trader in exchange for promises not to send thugs or muggers after him, or for police or monk protection. He rode this ticket to a strong lead.
Dave was whisked to Old Chinatown several times, including one ill-fated adventure that found him getting hooked on opium and spending three turns languishing in the seedy drug dens. Dave’s scandalous behavior also continued at the Gala Performances, where several times he created a scene and was forced to pay $20,000 in damages. His luck at gambling wasn’t much better, as he frequently lost money at his own Frenchtown Casino.
Eventually, we all realized that we had to cease making deals with Keith, as he was clearly hoarding copious amounts of cash in his international bank account. By turn 6, things turned very ugly as thugs and muggers were hired with great frequency. Keith lost control of just about all of his holdings, but still had enough money hoarded to have a strong chance of winning.
Sadly for me, when Keith was devastated, attention turned to me. My income was relatively high and my control of the Shipping Lines was causing consternation. Soon, the thugs were targeting my coolies and I, too, lost control of most of my holdings. Of course, both Keith and I retaliated, damaging both Dave and Willerd. As the game approached its end, control of most of the trading posts and rackets in Shanghai had been lost.
Keith was the first to make a run for the airport. However, he did not have enough cash-in-hand to hire bodyguards, so Dave succeeded in assassinating him as he bolted for the plane. Both Willerd and Dave also raced for the airport, with Dave being gunned down in spite of the presence of two bodyguards. Willerd, however, proved more elusive, with both Dave and I failing in our attempts to eliminate him. Willerd laughed with glee as his plane ferried him to safety.
I was the last to leave, having waited until the last possible turn to make my escape attempt. I only had one shot and, fortunately, succeeded, flying away from the chaos that had engulfed Shanghai.
When the money was counted, Willerd proved to be the wealthiest, having successfully absconded with $800,000, while I had managed to save $650,000. I was forced to withdraw $100,000 on my final turn in order to pay for my passport and bodyguards, but it still would not have been enough to win had I not needed it.
Poor Keith would have won if he had managed to escape, as he had managed to hoard $900,000.
Finals: Willerd $800,000; Greg $650,000; Dead: Keith $900,000, Dave $600,000
Ratings: Dave 8, Willerd 8, Keith 7.5, Greg 7